TOKYO — In a Season 3 episode of the “My Hero Academia” anime series, the show’s primary protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, fights the villain Muscular, who is massive and as his name indicates, really, really muscular.
Midoriya is trying to protect a child and ultimately defeats Muscular, but takes quite a beating in the process. But he fights through the pain to win.
This is the scene that anime fanatic and American 800 meter runner Isaiah Jewett watched on Saturday and brought with him to the track for his Olympic debut.
The 24-year-old likes to push the pace: At the U.S. Trials last month, he went out so fast current world champion Donavan Brazier was afraid to let Jewett get too far ahead and burned too much energy keeping him close, so much that Brazier, the gold-medal favorite, stunningly faded badly over the last 80 meters and failing to qualify for Tokyo.
Jewett would finish second, posting yet another lifetime best, something he’s done often this year.
He pushed the pace again on Saturday, running the opening lap in 51.7 seconds. The pack had caught him with about 250 meters to go and, for a moment, it looked like he might run out of gas. But he held on and finished in 1:45.07.
In the 800, the first three finishers in each heat plus the next six fastest times qualified for the semifinals. While Jewett was fifth in his heat, his fast start ultimately led to the fastest qualifying or semifinal heat in Olympic history, won by Ferguson Rotich of Kenya in 1:43.75, and Jewett easily made it to the next round on time.
“[Midoriya] pushed past the pain to beat [Muscular] because that was the only option. So that was the thing going through my head at that time, and I was just fighting to the end,” Jewett said. “Because after [Midoriya] was done he was passed out and you saw me, I was passed out on the stairs [up to the broadcast interview area].”
Born prematurely, Jewett has been a fighter since Day 1. For weeks, his tiny body battled to stay alive. But that contributed to Jewett developing more slowly than other kids his age, and he grew frustrated when he couldn’t best peers or his older sisters and brother in anything.
Running was his salvation, anime his inspiration to keep going even as he lost his earliest races.
Speaking with media after his race and still unsure whether he’d advance to Sunday, Jewett’s excitement just at his experience and finishing his first race against international competition was palpable.
“Yes I made a couple mistakes, but when I saw the time and I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve never gone that fast in a prelim before,’ it’s just looking at the brighter side of it,” he said. “I think what was really cool is that today I met some new rivals. After going to college and entering this big world of competition and now I have new rivals, new competitions, new type of training, and it’s just all exciting when it hit me at the line.
“Overall I’m just so happy I’m able to feel the fire of having new rivals and trying to beat them.”
Jewett said coach Jebreh Harris doesn’t like it when Jewett is called a frontrunner, because he wants the runner to compete and doesn’t want him boxed into one label, and makes sure they train different race scenarios.
Though to hear Jewett, however, it seems he likes taking the lead.
“My race strategy is what I’m supposed to do to make me happy. That’s what we came down to at the end, like whatever is going to make me happy,” Jewett said. “That’s going to be the most important thing to do when you’re running because having fun is so much a part of this.
“If you're not having fun in the 800, you’re going to burn out really fast because this race hurts. You gotta find some source of fun in whatever you’re doing because that’s what causes burnout, if you don’t have fun in the actions you’re doing.”
Jewett transferred from UC Irvine to University of Southern California in 2018 and really blossomed as a runner with the Trojans, but it seems like he doesn’t fully grasp his status in the sport.
Asked about having many of his training partners here — he’s close with Trojans teammate and 400m hurdler Anna Cockrell, and while 400m specialist Michael Norman and 400m hurdler Rai Benjamin both turned pro after leading USC during the 2018 NCAA season, they still work out at the school — Jewett speaks of them like he’s still the little brother, just trying to catch up.
“It’s been actually really good. Like Anna, like Mike, like Rai, they all talk to me and they all treat me as an equal and being treated as an equal with these high elite runners, it makes me less scared and it makes me more confident,” he said. “You’ve got people behind you that are really good that say, ‘Hey, you got this’ and that means the world to me because they’re so fast. And the fact that they tell me — it’s like Michael Norman telling me, ‘You got this,’ that just makes anybody happy.”
Norman and Benjamin might be strong medal contenders in their respective races, but Jewett seems to forget: They are all Olympians on the hardest team in the world to gain a spot.
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